Second special session closes with no liability relief for schools
Wednesday, August 12, 2020
Legislators returned to the Capitol on Monday for a one-day marathon special session but did not address school district liability protections for coronavirus.
The session started with floor sessions at 8 a.m. and didn’t end until after 11 p.m. The public and lobbyists were once again prohibited from entering the Capitol due to COVID-19. It was an unusual session, and at times the legislators were pretty unhappy with each other and the situation.
We have been advocating for weeks to get liability limitations for school districts. We’re working with a number of other public and private employer groups, along with a small legislative workgroup. Employee labor group and lawyer representatives are offering their perspective as well.
We have been negotiating proposed language, trying to find an agreement that everyone can support. The process has been collaborative and productive, but we haven’t found the right balance yet. There are still fundamental disagreements about how to deal with the harm that this COVID-19 pandemic is causing. Although our inability to come to an agreement is occasionally frustrating, it’s not a surprise.
Liability is all about legal responsibility for a harm that has occurred. Reopening schools in a safe manner is crucially important because students unable to attend school aren’t getting the services and supports they need. As a consequence, students are experiencing additional social and emotional challenges. We need liability protection to physically reopen because transmission of COVID-19 in a school environment is possible. So we’re trying to find common ground that allows individuals to seek redress for harm while protecting schools from financially draining and unwarranted lawsuits. It is a difficult, complicated discussion.
We will keep working with the stakeholders. I think we’re on the right track, and I’m hopeful that we’ll find a sensible solution.
In terms of what did get done during the session, the most important thing for school districts was the passage of House Bill 4303, which put $400 million into the State School Fund from the Education Stability Fund. This will maintain a $9 billion funding level for the biennium.
Although Gov. Kate Brown did suggest a veto of HB 4303 is possible, I do not think that will happen. It would be another disruption and would cause an immediate conflict with the Legislature. She has 30 days after the adjournment of the session to act on the bill, so that clock runs out Sept. 9.
It’s entirely possible that we’ll have a third special session this year. Three special sessions in a year would be pretty extraordinary, but it seems that in these strange times the work never stops. If another session occurs, we’ll be working hard to get a liability fix into law.